It was a typical college football game Thursday night except that four of the seven people wearing the black-and-white stripes were women.
The Southern Intercollege Athletic Conference billed the Miles-Lane game as the first majority-female officiating crew for an NCAA game.
The event—Miles won 38-26—was significant enough that the NFL's director of officiating David Coleman, director of recruiting Ron Baynes and regional scout Bob Shoulders attended the game. They wanted to see head linesman Yvonda Lewis, line judge Tangela Mitchell, field judge Sebrina Brunson and back judge Krystle Apellaniz in action, as well as the men.
"They paid their dues," said Harold Mitchell, director of officiating for the SIAC and SWAC. "They've done what's necessary to get in this position. They've earned it. And I'm hoping it will show the world that females can officiate just as well as men, and I'm hoping that more females will take the step to try to become football officials."
Hair tucked neatly into their caps and looking petite among the players, they mostly drew little attention once the game started—a plus for officials.
Apellaniz, a first-year SIAC official, had an especially busy sequence at one point. She had to run toward the sideline in the second half to stop the Miles band from playing when visiting Lane had the ball.
"I've never had to do that before," the Ovieda, Fla., resident said. "He warned them on the mic but they didn't hear him because they were so loud and beautiful."
A couple of minutes later, she had to help separate players after a personal foul call against Lane and didn't hesitate flagging Miles for pass interference on the next play.
The NFL began a Women Officiating Now (W.O.N.) program this year as part of the Football Officiating Academy launched in 2010. The program is designed to help recruit and train female officials.
Coleman said he had never seen more than one woman work a college game but did see two in a high school game.
Shannon Eastin of Tempe, Ariz., is the only woman to officiate in an NFL game. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference line judge moved up during the lockout last August for the preseason opener between Green Bay and San Diego.
"Will there be women officiating in the NFL? Yes, there will be, because we're committed to having the best officials," Coleman said. "We're committed to having excellence in officiating at all levels. We're looking for the best officials. When we have women, just like when we have men who are in that group, they will go in that (development) program.
Coleman said Sarah Thomas of Mississippi is the only female among the 21 officials in the NFL's top-tier advanced development program officiating in major college games.
"To get to the NFL as an official, you have to be in that group," he said. "That's our talent pool to come on the field when vacancies exist. She's doing very well in Conference USA and will be considered when (a spot) for line judge opens up."
In Birmingham, the four appeared relaxed before kickoff as they chatted with other officials and posed for photos.
They were kept hustling during the game, which produced 51 first-half points.
Brunson did get a hard time from a coach after her shoe came off.
"He said I should have tied my shoe better," the veteran official said. "He wasn't going to cut me any slack."
Other than that, the coaches did offer encouragement at times beyond the gender-neutral sideline grief.
"Coaches would say, 'Good job,'" Apellaniz said.
"I think coaches just see stripes," added side judge Keith Dollar.
Their presence didn't go unnoticed by some of the several hundred fans. Miles fan Crissy Lancaster Scott and a group of friends—both male and female—cheered the women as they jogged off the field at halftime.
"Girl power. It's all about girl power," Scott said. "I just love to see women step out and do things that men probably don't think they should do."
Lewis, like Brunson an experienced official, said once the game starts, they just want to be seen for the stripes and whistle. She said many female officials wear their hair up so they're seen more as "just guys officiating football."
Mitchell said he often pairs veteran officials from the FCS SWAC with younger ones from the SIAC in Thursday night games.
Mitchell said the four women made an impression when they worked together at the leagues' latest football camp.
"As I watched them I said, 'Wow, they look good,'" Mitchell said "It so happened that all of them were available on the same day.
"I said, 'It's going to be neat to have them out there showing what good football officials they are.'"